The Saturn Aura debuted two years ago to accolades from consumers as well as the press, becoming a reasonable success in terms of sales. Like many GM products, the Aura shares much of its front-wheel-drive chassis and drivetrain with similar models like Chevy's Malibu and Pontiac's G6. What sets the Aura apart from its domestic brethren is its modern styling inside and out, as well as its unexpected road-holding prowess.
For the 2009 Aura, Saturn is emphasizing fuel economy. The midlevel 3.5-liter V6 has been discontinued, and the four-cylinder engine is now the only choice for the base XE trim. The four-cylinder has even been made an option this year for the upmarket XR. Saturn has also upgraded the four-cylinder's transmission, from a four-speed automatic to an advanced six-speed auto. Efficiency has risen as a result, and the four-cylinder Aura's fuel economy is now at the top of the midsize sedan segment. The powerful 3.6-liter V6 carries into 2009 unchanged.
Thanks to these effective powertrains as well as its smooth ride, spacious interior and sharp styling, the 2009 Saturn Aura is a respectable choice for a family sedan. But the competition is fierce. When the Aura faces off against the likes of the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry or even its Malibu sibling, its faults, such as a less-than-stellar interior and numb steering, become more glaring. We also had numerous reliability problems with our long-term Aura XR V6 test car. Those in the market for any of these family four-doors would be well-advised to check out all choices before deciding.
The midsize 2009 Saturn Aura family sedan is offered in two trim levels: XE and XR. The base-model XE comes standard with 17-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, air-conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a trip computer, OnStar and a six-speaker CD/MP3 audio system with an auxiliary audio jack and satellite radio. Going with the four-cylinder XR gets you 17-inch alloy wheels, remote vehicle start, foglamps, leather seating, a power driver seat, heated front seats, Bluetooth and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. The XR V6 is very similar but has 18-inch alloys, automatic climate control and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass. Most of these features are available for the XE model as part of options packages. On the XR only, you can also get an eight-speaker audio system with redundant rear-seat audio controls (and two sets of wireless headphones), a six-CD changer and a power passenger seat. A sunroof is available for all Auras as an option.
Space is the overriding sensation inside the Saturn Aura. Even when compared to those of the foreign class leaders, the Aura's cabin allows plenty of room in any seat. Getting in can occasionally be a problem, however, as the shape of the dash and B-pillar obstruct ingress, and it's a little difficult to wriggle behind the steering wheel, particularly if you're taller or large-framed.
Once inside, the driver is treated to an attractive-looking dash with engaging and legible gauges, though the amber-colored stereo and trip-computer readouts can be completely obscured in direct sunlight. More disappointing is the overall interior quality. In entry-level XE trim, the interior is adorned with metallic accents, but they do little to hide the inferior plastics used throughout. The XR trim level, at least, has attractive leather surfaces and simulated wood accents. Neither model has a fold-down armrest for the rear seat. Trunk space, at just under 15 cubic feet, is about average for this segment.
For 2009, the Saturn Aura line is trimmed down to two engine choices (not including the Aura Hybrid). Both the entry-level Aura XE and the upscale XR are powered by GM's popular 2.4-liter inline-4 that produces 169 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque. The more capable 3.6-liter V6 has an output of 252 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque; it's offered only for the XR trim. Both engine choices are mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, which includes steering-wheel-mounted paddles that allow drivers to shift their own gears if they wish.
Fuel economy gives the four-cylinder Aura a slight edge over competing models, turning in EPA numbers of 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway and 26 mpg in combined driving. The V6 XR model's added performance helps it reach 60 mph in an impressive 6.4 seconds, but mileage drops to 17 city/26 highway and 20 mpg combined.
The fuel economy gains for the 2009 Saturn Aura are admirable, especially considering today's gas prices. The four-cylinder should be a fine choice for many shoppers, though the V6 provides considerably more power, particularly at low and middle rpm.
In general, the Aura feels steady, smooth, quiet and planted on the road, making it fine for long-distance conveyance. It seems as though the main gripe we have with the Aura is its steering. The four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines come with different steering setups, but neither offers much feeling from the wheel. The four-cylinder's electric steering is at least easier on the arms, as the V6's hydraulic system is overly heavy, making for a laborious effort at parking speeds. It has also suffered from reliability issues.
Standard safety features on the Saturn Aura include antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Passenger sensors, new for 2009, improve front airbag deployment. There's no doubt that these features helped the Aura garner perfect marks for frontal- and side-impact tests from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (five out of five stars) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (the highest grade, "Good").
For 2009, the Saturn Aura's previously optional 3.5-liter V6 engine has been discontinued. Instead, all base XE models come with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Additionally, this engine is offered on the premium XR trim level for the first time. Saturn has also paired the four-cylinder with a six-speed automatic transmission to help boost fuel economy. Other changes include standard stability control and the introduction of Bluetooth connectivity.